Jazz Lives

by Gene Lees, John Reeves,
240 pages,
ISBN: 189556512X

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Brief Reviews - Non-fiction
by Robin Britt

JAZZ IS A collaborative art, and the more than 100 performers that Jazz Lives (Stewart House, 216 pages, $50 cloth) captures in Gene Lees's words and John Reeves's photographs add up to one big jam session of a book. From octogenarian Spiegle Wilcox to 20-something youngbloods such as Christian McBride, Lees's capsule prose portraits deftly convey the lively, restless, inquisitive nature of North America's most sophisticated indigenous art form, although they are unfortunately to some extent negated by Reeves's "big face" approach to portraiture.

The problem, basically, is that these prominent, serene, usually smiling faces seem to subtly contradict the revolutionary energies of the music they make. In performance, these musicians are alert, intense, often manic explorers of the interface between the composed and the improvised; in repose, as here, they blend into the everyday human scene with all too instantaneous alacrity. These are still faces redolent of strong character and conviction, but they do not, for the most part, evoke the musical qualities that are in the final analysis the reason why we care about these particular performers.

Jazz Lives simply doesn't give us enough of the story. In combination with the kind of on-the-job documentary photography practised by Valerie Wilmer in As Serious As Your Life, Reeves's "big face" images would probably work very well; but by themselves they impress as only partial portraits of a far richer reality. There is a lot of human interest and vitality here, but as Duke Ellington and Irving Mills phrased it, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" - and Jazz Lives doesn't quite have it.


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